Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Comics Reviews (July 1st, 2015)

Part One: Comics

From worst to best of what I voluntarily paid money for.

Secret Wars #4

It's not even that it's a bad comic. It's just that, well, at this point it's become impossible to read this comic as a separate phenomenon from the overall realignment of Marvel comics (see part two of this post). Here we have what is in effect a brutal rejection of an entire line of thought in Marvel comics that has been going for several years - the Cyclops-as-Revolutionary angle. The comic is explicitly configured to allow Cyclops's vision of fiery rebirth a moment in the sunlight and then to cut it down. Specifically in favor of a Reed vs Doom story. Although with the knowledge that both X-Men and Fantastic Four are being consciously downplayed within Marvel right now for broader corporate reasons, it's tough to see that as a promising dualism either.

The real problem, though, is that I've always wanted to root for the Cyclops-as-Revolutionary angle. I've always thought that challenge to what superhero narratives are was worth exploring seriously and allowing the possibility of moral validity. Hickman turns away from it very, very hard here. I reject that, aesthetically. It's not even that I think Cyclops is morally right. I think that's a functionally meaningless question within the melodramatic metaphysics of a superhero universe. It's that I think Cyclops is a vehicle for giving voice to perspectives superhero narratives don't usually get to explore, and that Hickman gave him depressingly short shrift here.

Yes, there's more issues and this may turn around. But this is a review of this specific issue. And given Secret Wars demands to be read as a meta-commentary on the state of Marvel Comics, I think what it's saying this month is rank fucking bullshit.

Grant Morrison's 18 Days #1

Honestly, I just think it's unfair to ask the world to offer any sort of critical judgment of this, and I'm half-inclined to say that I'm going to buy it and not review it. It's clearly not a major Grant Morrison project. And look, I don't begrudge him taking the money and running, which he's clearly done with this. But this book is a Kirby pastiche reworking of the Mahabharata with an artist who is not Jack Kirby. And a writer who is not Jack Kirby. It's pretty. It's competent. But what on Earth is one supposed to say of it? Morrison is in the backmatter comparing himself favorably to Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare. This issue doesn't stand up to either. But equally, it seems vital to note that the problem is not what the book is - a western comic based on Hindi mythology. The problem is that this is just a Kirby pastiche of novel subject matter.

Ultimate End #3

There's a shell game here, obviously. This book inherits its premise from other bits of Secret Wars. Not all of those bits are out yet. So the precise nature of Manhattan and of this mash-up of the 616 and Ultimate Universes is not yet revealed. I am interested in that question. The problem is, like Jason Aaron's Thor run, it's an intellectual problem, not a story.

Darth Vader #7

We switch to the good stuff for the week, I'm happy to say. Or, at least, what we might call the "good but didn't quite work for me" stretch of reviews. This is capable, interesting, and still a Star Wars comic that I'm buying purely for the fact that I enjoy watching the writer work. In this case he doesn't do anything that immediately grabs me, which is in no way a valid criticism.

Years of Future Past #2

A serviceable comic undermined by the fact that anything X-Men and Secret Wars related is aggressively ephemeral. That's not a problem of course; the demand that comics "matter" is a very silly one based on a misunderstanding of what comics are. The problem, I think, is that Bennett is too restrained as a writer. She's got loads of talent and style - the Colossus monologue page is a brilliant piece of style. She writes a brilliant Magneto. The final page reveal is a massive grin-inducer. But she has a post-apocalyptic team of mutants none of whom have to survive, and this book comes off as timid compared to its canvas.

Chew #50

I can tell that this is a well-structured issue. It's obvious that it's an interesting plot beat to throw at issue #50 of a sixty-issue series. It pays off a lot of stuff. It's clearly a good comic. And I am entirely aware that my problem with this issue is quite literally my problem - one unique to me, and a failing on my part as a reader. That said, it builds to a final page reveal that depends on my being able to identify a character who has no dialogue in this issue. And... I can't. I forget who the blonde woman in Chu's arms is. I don't remember her relationship with anyone. I'm sure she's done stuff in the book and is important, but... nope. Total blank. So the whole thing just sort of... deflates for me. Like I said, my fault. My failing. Still didn't work for me.

A-Force #2

It's interesting to basically watch a book be demoed on a setting other than its actual one. Which is to say, I like A-Force, the comic about female Avengers led by She-Hulk. I like the takes on the major characters. I like the choices of major characters. But this still falls slightly short for me. I think it's because, as an issue, it's kind of vacant. As with Years of Future Past, Bennett (and she would appear to be lead on this issue) doesn't really go for the sort of "and now for the big moment" revelry that the pop comics style she's a best fit for demands. There's no moment that feels like punching the air and saying "that's what I spent my money for." She's good. I think she can deliver some top drawer comics. But she needs to work on that aspect of her game.

The Wicked and the Divine #12

And now we shift to the great stuff. And this is great. Gillen handles the shift away from McKelvie well. Kate Brown is a good transitional artist for this, maintaining the book's basic visual grammar but introducing us to a spin on the premise. But this is a calm between the storms issue; Gillen is running out the clock, going down some side alleys and doing his worldbuilding. But it's an obvious bit of non-misdirection. He's flagging, in a variety of ways, that we're eventually going to circle back to Laura and, by extension, Lucifer. I mean, if nothing else, gee, it's funny how every god who's died so far is an underworld god. I WONDER WHAT THE AFTERLIFE IS LIKE.

Which works. There's a tension of an eventual reveal that infuses a side trip like "let's pay attention to Cass's old assistants for an issue" with a really compelling tension, especially as the larger "who's going to figure out what Ananke is actually up to first" game plays out in the background. As serialize drama, the moving parts are exquisitely put together.

Equally, and again this comes down to "we're judging issues here, not books," Gillen makes a Sandman analogy in the backmatter that's on point. This issue - maybe this arc, but certainly this issue - is one of those side trips like the dead boy detectives in Seasons of Mists or the entirety of World's End - a conscious step away from the main story. And the truth is... well, that's why Sandman works better in trade.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7

What can I say. Ryan North is funny. He has clever ideas. This book shows that off. There are many highlights, and I will not spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it. Oh, OK. Ratatoskr.

Uber #26

Sheer bravado. Uber's version of "Blackwater" or "The Watchers on the Walls," with an entire issue spent on a single battle. With twenty-five issues of buildup that have screamed loudly that this is not a book that offers a rosy view of war or history, the idea of a major battle testing a sympathetic character's technical capabilities is genuinely terrifying. Uber has taught us to fear, very much, for our main characters. And this issue trades on that, while maintaining an exquisite balance of personal character focus and sweeping historical scope. Small moments and big ones juxtapose. It's awful. It's ugly. It's intriguing. It's brilliant. Fucking hell, this book.

Part Two: The Marvel Previews

From best to worst, with a clear marker of where the stuff I'll buy ends.
  1. Karnak - Well, it'll only be six issues, but this is delightfully batshit.
  2. Ms. Marvel - "Crushed it" indeed.
  3. Spider-Man - Love me some Miles Morales. 
  4. A-Force - Wilson is an autobuy. Love the cast. 
  5. Ultimates - Galactus on a team book by Al Ewing, yes please. Also Miss America. All the yes.
  6. Invincible Iron Man - Bendis on Iron Man sounds a safe bet.
  7. All-New All Different Avengers - Great cast, Waid's a reasonably secure bet as a writer. 
  8. Uncanny Avengers - Have liked enough of what I've seen of Duggan to try this, but Deadpool is worrisome.
  9. New Avengers - Buying entirely because Ewing is an autobuy for at least a first issue, but nothing that grabs me here as such. Squirrel Girl's nice.
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy - Bendis is, ultimately, still an autobuy, although this has hardly been my favorite book of his. 
  11. Contest of Champions - Seems very silly, but I'll always give an Ewing book a shot, as I said, and very silly could be fun.
  12. Spider-Gwen - The abrupt pause in the series after #5 definitely screwed up momentum on this for me, not least because it wasn't a great issue, so this could end up being a jumping off point for me eventually, but it's not yet.
  13. Angela: Asgard's Assassin - As the above reviews suggest, Bennett isn't quite catching for me, but I kind of want to give her more chance, and I am already invested in the plot here. This is the lowest-ranked book to be a definite buy for #1.
  14. Spider-Woman - The premise grabs me, and I have a vague intention of giving Hopeless a try, as I don't think I gave him a fair shake previously, so this is the best bet of where that might happen.
  15. Howard the Duck - Have had enough recommendations for this that I mean to check out the first run. If that's good, will buy this too. 
  16. Sam Wilson, Captain America - Nick Spencer can be good, and I like the idea of a Sam/Steve schism. Give me more premise and we'll see.
  17. Daredevil - Soule is hit and miss, but he does do good lawyers, and the Daredevil/Gambit pair is intriguing.
  18. Web Warriors - Maybe, as I like some of the characters, but I'm pointedly trying to keep my pulls down, and this seems exactly the sort of book I can decide against.
  19. The Totally Awesome Hulk  - I don't know, who is the Hulk? I tend not to like questions like that, but the name charms me.
  20. Venom: Spaceknight - OK, those are not two words I expected to see together, and that raises an eyebrow at least. 
  21. Uncanny Inhumans - Probably not, as I haven't fallen in love with any of Soule's previous Inhumans work, but I'm not saying no.
  22. All-New Wolverine - OK, this doesn't grab me inherently, but mostly because I don't know who Taylor is. I like the art and the premise. The highest-ranked "maybe" for me - everything below this is a 0% chance of my buying it barring new information.
  23. Amazing Spider-Man - Haven't loved Slott's stuff post-Superior Spider-Man, and think this will be my exit from Spider-Man.
  24. Captain Marvel - I haven't gotten to Agent Carter episode two yet, and it's been months, so I don't think this team will win me back.
  25. All-New X-Men - Of the three X-Men books, this is the most promising, not least as I do mean to give Hopeless a try on something, as I said. But with the X-Men line on the whole looking droppable right now, this falls below the plausibility point.
  26. Extraordinary X-Men - Lemire and Ramos are both "not dealbreaker" sorts of creators, so this just sort of leaves me cold, but I do like the feel for an X-Men book. 
  27. Uncanny X-Men - Interesting premise, but I have no faith in either Bunn or Marvel tackling this sort of sinister X-book.
  28. Nova - Gutted to see that this does not feature the awesome Nova family from Infinity Gauntlet. 
  29. Doctor Strange - I don't think I like Jason Aaron's work.
  30. The Mighty Thor - Will be dropping this, as I just don't dig the angle.
  31. Hawkeye - I like the Clint vs Kate premise, but I've not been following post-Fraction Hawkeye, and this doesn't look set to grab me.
  32. Spider-Man 2099 - Glad people who like this have a book.
  33. Star-Lord - Haven't felt a hole in my life without a Star-Lord book before, don't imagine I'll start now.
  34. Old Man Logan - Not the Wolverine book I suspect I want.
  35. Ant-Man - Just sort of the purest distillation of "meh" for me.
  36. Silk - The character hasn't grabbed me yet, and the villainy tone of the solicit leaves me cold. 
  37. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - I don't even like the television series.
  38. Drax - Can't see this working for me.
  39. Vision - Don't know the writer, no obvious hook in the premise, not a character that grabs me
  40. Illuminati - this looks utterly not like my thing. 
  41. Deadpool - I don't like Deadpool.
  42. Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Cute premise, but this seems the embodiment of "cool idea but not a book I would enjoy." Low place mainly due to the appalling resolution of the art, I suspect.
  43. Scarlet Witch - Robinson does not currently interest me, especially not after this shitstorm.
  44. Squadron Supreme - Cannot imagine why I would buy this.
  45. Carnage - I loathe Conway's work. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Short Guide to Janelle Monáe and the Metropolis Saga

The June bonus post, as voted upon by my generous Patrons

A large amount of the critical discourse surrounding Janelle Monáe has focused on the question of why she hasn’t been more successful. I mean, sure, she’s got a major label record deal, is one of only a handful of black women to run her own record label, is one of the most critically acclaimed artists working, and is making a good living while making art according to her own vision and nobody else’s, but her best-performing album only hit #5 in the charts, so obviously she’s doing something wrong. And looking at her work and her career, I think I know what her problem is: she’s never had a white male science fiction fan whose only credentials for writing about music are having co-authored a book about They Might Be Giants write a detailed guide to her work.

An appalling oversight, to be sure, but one I’m only too happy to help correct.

The bulk of Monáe’s work consists of the five (and counting) part Metropolis Saga, released over two albums and an EP, and currently projected to run for seven parts, although it was previously slated as four parts. The suite focuses on the stories of Monáe’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android.

Suite 0: The Audition

Monáe’s 2003 self-released album The Audition is not actually a part of the Metropolis Saga, but contains two songs that introduce the themes and concepts she would later explore in the Metropolis Saga: “Metropolis” and “Cindi.”

The first of these is interesting in that it serves as a concise and bespoke sketch of the Metropolis setting, describing a run down and oppressive city (“Population ten zillion and six”) from the perspective of a “cyber girl” living “on the wired side of town.” Most of the song is a liltingly wistful number about the unnamed narrator’s dreams of freedom, with a spoken word bridge about the prejudices faced by “wired folk” on the grounds that “we have no feelings no memories or minds.” Several major concepts that will be expanded on in the Metropolis Saga proper are introduced here, most notably the repressive Droid Control and the character of Anthony Greendown. 

The second is a two minute ballad that has no overt sci-fi trappings, instead being about the gulf between one’s dreams and one’s ordinary self, singing about “that girl in the mirror / with hair like a rock star / she wants to dance but she has cold feet/ her confidence is low / so much talent but who’ll know / when she’s afraid to follow her dreams.” But the lyrics make reference to trying “to be Cindi, in hopes that they’d notice,” a title drop that alludes to the robotic alter-ego she would eventually flesh out in detail. Crucial - indeed, as will eventually become clear, the entire point of the exercise - is the aspirational quality, one that’s implicit in the demo album’s title, The Audition. This is, in many ways, the eternal plot of the Metropolis Saga: Janelle Monáe’s continuing attempt to become Cindi Mayweather, a process that is indistinguishable from her continuing attempt to define what that means. 

Suite I: The Chase

Monáe finally made her breakthrough with a 2007 EP entitled Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). These days it’s sold as either a seven track version (the Special Edition) featuring the songs “Mr. President” and “Smile,” or as an eleven track version (the Fantastic Edition) featuring some remixes, but the actual Suite I consists only of the first five tracks.

Of the five existent suites, the first is by some margin the most straightforwardly narrative, although by the end of the fifth track, “Sincerely, Jane,” the notion of what a narrative is within the context of the Metropolis Saga becomes complex, to say the least.

It starts simply enough, however, with “March of the Wolfmasters,” a spoken word piece in the form of an announcement that “Android No. 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown,” which means that bounty hunters are now free to hunt her (although the daily rules specify “no phasers, only chainsaws and electro-daggers”). This is followed by “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, which picks up straightforwardly from the perspective of Cindi as she goes on the run. (A highlight here: the way in which the lyrical description of the sirens melds into scat singing.) 

But it is the third track, “Many Moons,” that serves as the suite’s key song - a literal centerpiece that was the Grammy-nominated single and the track to get a music video. The video poses an interesting challenge for anyone trying to construct a linear narrative, in that it features Cindi Mayweather as a singing and dancing entertainer at the annual Metropolis Android Auction, a setting that cannot be reconciled with the ostensible plots of “March of the Wolfmasters” and “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” 

\Lyrically, the song starts by continuing the theme of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, describing an oppressive and degrading society (“all we ever wanted to say / was chased, erased, and then thrown away”). But after two verses the song pivots into a litany of short phrases. What’s interesting about these phrases, though, is that they don’t all seem to be part of the same conceptual space. Some are clearly part of the world of Metropolis (“cybergirl / droid control /get away now they trying to steal your soul”) while others seem to be part of the real world (“breast cancer / common cold / HIV / lost hope / overweight / self esteem / misfit / broken dream”). 

Following the recitation, the drums trail off from the song and another musical section begins, a slow and mournful lullaby that begins “and when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home.” In the video, this takes place as Cindi is suspended in the air, lightning crackling from her, with the song and video ending with Cindi falling to the ground, seemingly dead. But the lyrics of the section and the imagery complicate this. In the video, Cindi is one of several androids portrayed by Monáe, all of whom lip sync the lyrics in unison. As Cindi dies, the bulk of the lyrics are voiced by one of her alter-egos, Lady Maestra, Master of the Show Droids, whose veiled footwomen surround the dying Cindi as though to bear her away. Meanwhile, the lyrics, about how “ when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home” and how “the old man dies and then a baby’s born” suggest a theme of rebirth. 

Taken together with the varied litany that precedes it and the title (a phrase that does not appear in the lyrics itself, but does in the quote, attributed to Cindi, that closes the video, “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom”), there is a strong suggestion that the sort of freedom referenced throughout the song (“revolutionize your lives and find a way out,” as the chorus puts it) is one of escape into other worlds entirely. This is, in other words, where the “time travel” aspect of the Metropolis concept comes in. Monáe uses time travel not as a means of straightforwardly visiting other places and times, but rather to reconceptualize Cindi as a figure of eternal resistance. The many moons that Cindi imagines lighting her way to freedom, in other words, are simply other Cindis, some in worlds like Metropolis (hence the video, whose plot is seemingly incompatible with the album), some in other worlds entirely, most obviously that of the listener.

This makes the final two tracks of Suite I fairly straightforward. The first, “Cybertronic Purgatory,” depicts a captured Cindi (notably, a development not unlike that of the Cindi in the video’s death), whereas the second, the extremely solid “Sincerely, Jane,” clearly depicts the real world, as opposed to the stylized dystopia of Metropolis, with lyrics like “I've seen them shootin' up funerals in they Sunday clothes / spending money on spinners but won't pay college loans / and all you gangers and bangers rollin' dice and taking lives, in a smokey dark,” but nevertheless still reflecting the basic desires expressed by Cindi elsewhere on the album, namely to find some sort of freedom or escape, imaginative or otherwise, from the dystopia. Or, more simply, in “Cybertronic Purgatory” Cindi is captured and destroyed, but this only causes her to reincarnate in a new setting entirely.

The sort of science fiction in play, in other words, is one in the New Wave tradition of endless redefinition - something akin to Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, perhaps. It is a mythology of transformation, as suggested in the Seventh Droid Commandment distributed at Monáe’s live shows, which lists various inspirations including Octavia Butler, David Bowie, and Andy Warhol. Or, for that matter, as suggested in the aggressively transhumanist Tenth Droid Commandment, which warns that “children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings.”

Suite II: The ArchAndroid Tracks 1-11

Monáe’s proper album debut, The ArchAndroid came in 2010, and offered the second and third suites of what was still projected to be a four-part sequence. Its nominal plot concerns Cindi’s realization that she is the messianic figure of the ArchAndroid, whose return to Metropolis (conceptualized here, apparently, as not just having androids but “elves and dwarves” and “clones and aliens”) will free the city from the Great Divide, “a secret society which has been using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages,” and that is suggested to be tied to the American government. 

In one sense, Suites II and III can be divided with a sort of ruthless pragmatism - Suite II is where the singles are, whereas Suite III is more esoteric and experimental stuff. This isn’t quite fair, in that Suite II has a few distinct oddities, while Suite III has one of the album’s catchiest numbers, but it generally works. Suite II opens with an instrumental piece in the style of a film score, giving proceedings an epic and cinematic heft, before segueing into the first proper song, “Dance or Die.”

The song opens in a tacit callback to “Many Moons” (one of two in Suite II, with track eight, “Neon Gumbo,” being the post-chant portion of “Many Moons” played backwards), with a recitation: “Cyborg, android, d-boy, decoy, water, wisdom, tightrope, vision, insight, stronghold, heartless, ice cold, mystery, mastery, solar, battery.” But the vocal is not Monáe’s; rather, it’s guest artist Saul Williams, the acclaimed rapper and slam poet. This has a couple of effects. First, it interpolates Williams’s aesthetic into Monáe’s, giving a sense of revolutionary swagger to proceedings. Second, and not unrelatedly, it creates a sense of distance from Monáe herself.

It’s telling, then, that “Dance or Die” is the furthest from any sort of confessional mode that the Metropolis Saga has been since the opening “March of the Wolfmasters.” The first verse contains no first person pronouns whatsoever, in contrast with all of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, “Many Moons,” and “Sincerely, Jane,” all of which invoke the first person in their first lines. More to the point, however, the “I” of the song is pointedly distant from Cindi. The chorus, where first person pronouns make their first appearance, is clearly about Cindi, as opposed to by Cindi: “a long long way to find the one / we’ll keep on dancing til she comes / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever / and if you wanna wake the sun / just keep on marching to the drums / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever.” (The phrase “wake the sun” is also notable, in that it tacitly invokes Sun Ra, tying the figure of the ArchAndroid into a much larger tradition of afrofuturism and utopianism.)

“Dance or Die” also develops the specifics of Monáe’s vision of resistance and revolution, with dancing not just serving as a means of waiting for the ArchAndroid, but as an explicit form of resistance and, more to the point, of survival in a fallen and degrading world. (“It’s still a war in all the streets and yes freaks will dance or die.”) This theme carries through the next three tracks, “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown,” each of which return to a straightforwardly confessional mode and depict a their narrators in positions of captivity and longing for some form of release. 

These three tracks serve as the lead-in to Suite II’s centerpiece, the double-header of “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” which also served as the album’s two singles. Both are upbeat, anthemic numbers with choruses primarily in the second person, a fact emphasized by the video for “Cold War,” which is a straightforward close-up of Monáe lip syncing the song to camera. The two songs also have relatively similar themes, focusing on the act of resistance and rebellion as primarily an internal one. “Cold War,” for instance, proclaims that “if you want to be free / below the ground’s the only place to be” and that “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” in amidst the chorus’s repeated declaration that “this is a cold war / you better know what you’re fighting for.” Indeed, the basic image of the title is in this regard telling; when last the direct imagery of war appeared it was in “Dance or Die,” where the war was an overt one that seemed in turn to harken back to “Sincerely Jane” in its depiction of the often cruel realities of urban life. (“Ghettos keep a crying out to streets full of zombies / kids are killing kids and then the kids join the army.”) Here, however, the war has become a cold war, free of literal violence, where the primary stakes are the maintenance of your own identity.

“Tightrope,” meanwhile, is the album’s main single, a rolicking number about maintaining balance and perspective in life and not getting “too high” or “too low” as you “tip on the tightrope” in life. It’s also the only track to get a substantive video (as opposed to the zero-budget one for “Cold War”). Interestingly, the video is not set in Metropolis. Nor, however, is it straightforwardly set in the present day. It takes place in the Palace of the Dogs, which is described as an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” The Palace is expanded on in the text piece that opens liner notes to The ArchAndroid (a sort of afrofuturist piece of weird fiction that also contains the astonishing statement “I am convinced now that 1954 is not just a year - it is an army”), which explain that that Monáe herself is imprisoned in the asylum. In this telling of the Metropolis mythos, Monáe is originally from the year 2719, where she was kidnapped, had her genetic code stolen and used to create Cindi Mayweather, and was then sent back in time. (The piece also has the helpful observation that “most of the story does not bear logical sense,” a useful guide in trying to parse it.)

This refocusing on resistance as an internal mental practice carries over in the final stretch of Suite II, which, after the palate cleansing “Neon Gumbo,” consists of “Oh, Maker,” “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” and “Mushrooms & Roses.” Like the stretch from “Faster” to “Sir Greendown,” all three are in the confessional mode, foregrounding Monáe (or her character) in the lyrics. But where “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown” presented Monáe struggling for escape, these three present characters who have taken the lessons of “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to heart and found internal lives offering some measure of freedom.

The first, “Oh, Maker,” is a Simon and Garfunkel riff, interpolating the guitar line of “Sounds of Silence” and nicking the first line of “Kathy’s Song” for a mournful ballad from Cindi to her vision of God, which, sensibly for an android, is instead the Maker. The second, “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” is a full-throated embrace of strangeness and madness (and indeed, one of the few Monáe numbers that one could mount a decent social justice critique of). And “Mushrooms & Roses” closes out proceedings with a languid and distortion-heavy paen to the freedom of the eponymous club, “where all the lonely droids and lovers have their wildest dreams.” The song is also notable for the first mention of Mary, a cryptically defined figure of attraction within the Metropolis Saga, described here as “crazy about me / she’s wild man, she’s wild / she gives the boys all of her kisses and electricity / the golden door of their emotions opens wide / here they fall into her love and never have to hide.”

Suite III: The ArchAndroid Tracks 12-18

Despite being seven tracks long to Suite II’s eleven, Suite III is only about seven minutes shorter, a fact that is somewhat revealing about its content, which includes the two longest songs on the album, the six minute “Say You’ll Go” and the nearly nine minute “Babopbye Ya.” It is the half of the album that is less concerned with pop hooks, and more inclined towards the experimental. Thematically, it is thoroughly disjointed, and indeed, can fairly be criticized for losing focus compared to the Suite II, which, on its own, would form a ruthlessly tight pop EP.

To some extent, this disjoint is the point; much of this suite trades on the considerable stylistic differences among tracks, jumping from a crooned R&B love song to what’s basically an Of Montreal song (the only song on the album for which Monáe does not have a writing credit) to the jaunty synths of “Wondaland” to haunting folk to a ballad to the multi-part epic of “Babopbye Ya.” Certainly at no point has Monáe’s music sounded unduly repetitive, and there are individual transitions in Suite II just as radical (most obviously “Sir Greendown” to “Cold War” and “Oh, Maker” to “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”), but the sheer breadth of styles here is striking.

The standout track of Suite III, and indeed one of the high points of The ArchAndroid in general is “Wondaland,” a ruthlessly catchy piece of synth-funk that combines the psychedelia of lines like “Dance in the trees / paint mysteries / the magnificent droid plays there / your magic mind / makes love to mine” and “the grass grows inside / the music floats you gently on your toes / touch the nose, he’ll change our clothes to tuxedos” and the wonderfully silly chorus of “Take me back to Wondaland / I gotta get back to Wondaland / Take me back to Wondaland / She thinks she left her underpants.” It’s a masterpiece, and would have made a fine third single. 

Suite III is also notable for containing the last mentions of Anthony Greendown in the Metropolis Saga to date, both in the overture, which interpolates bits of “Sir Greendown,” and at the end of “57821,” where he comes up twice, and, more broadly, where the song is clearly about him, beginning with a description of how “Early each morning he searched for her / til his feet become bloody and tired.” It’s fitting that this should happen immediately after the introduction of Mary, marking a clear transition in the focus of the Metropolis Saga.

And although Greendown is only explicitly mentioned in two songs, his presence hangs over much of Suite III, which has a recurring theme of distance and departure. “Neon Valley Street,” for instance, repeats the line “may this song reach your heart” throughout, alongside many other lines about communicating over distance. “Say You’ll Go” is downright literal about this theme. And “Babopbye Ya” (and thus Suite III and The ArchAndroid) ends with the line “my freedom calls and I must go.” The overall sense, in other words, is of moving on, suggesting that Cindi’s ascension to the role of ArchAndroid must also be understood as a turn away from the life depicted back in Suite I and towards an altogether broader perspective.

Suite IV: The Electric Lady Tracks 1-10

Monáe’s second album, The Electric Lady, is a structurally more complex beast, divided not just into its two suites, but into four sections split up by a trio of interludes in the form of a bantering radio DJ on WDRD fielding calls from eccentric listeners. Notably, these divisions do not coincide with the suites - they come on tracks 5, 8, and 14. 

The Electric Lady is also somewhat complex in terms of how it fits with the rest of the Metropolis Saga. It marks the point where Monáe decided to extend the series from its original four parts to seven, and Monáe has suggested that it is in fact a prequel to The Chase, as she wasn’t sure how she wanted to end the cycle yet. This makes some narrative sense, offering a plot-related reason for the absence of Anthony Greendown from this album (though he does get a mention in the liner notes), but given that Mary makes multiple appearances in the lyrics is not quite as straightforward as it might appear, not least because the album marks a decisive move forward in Monáe’s songwriting and production such that it is conceptually difficult to treat it as an earlier, less mature version of her central character.

The Electric Lady does, however, share The ArchAndroid’s basic structure of a first suite composed of the hits and a second suite of less overtly commercial material. In fact, Suite IV is basically a wall-to-wall run of potential hits - of its seven proper songs, four were singles, and two more easily could have been. It’s a swaggering, confident run of songs that can easily be read as embodying Cindi’s revolutionary potential. This is made clear from the opening overture of the Suite, described in the liner notes as “inspired by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington,” and opening with a majestic crescendo to the triumphant line, “she has arrived!”

The effect continues ruthlessly in the next track, which opens as a guitar line that sounds like it comes from a lost Prince song as Monáe spits out her initial burst of braggadoccio: “I am sharper than a razor / eyes made of lasers / bolder than the truth.” And then, ninety seconds in, the song pulls off the ultimate moment of bravado as it goes from being a Prince homage to actually having Prince drop in for a verse. (A moment that also explains why the guitar line sounded like such a dead-on Prince homage.) 

Monáe follows this with the album’s first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a manifesto of defiance that opens, “I can’t believe all of the things they say about me / walk in the room they throwing shade left to right,” but that eventually focuses on mundane and everyday judgments, as Monáe asks things like “is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror / and am I weird to dance alone late at night?” and “is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” (The song also includes the Metropolis Saga’s second reference to Mary: “am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”) Eventually it concludes that “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am” and segues into a bridge from Erykah Badu that culminates in the observation that “the booty don’t lie.”

The accompanying video posits Monáe and the rest of the Wondaland Arts Society as famous rebels from history who have been captured in suspended animation by the oppressive future regime of Metropolis, but who are broken out by a bunch of rebels armed only with a record containing the single (described in the voiceover as “a musical weapons project,” and as a freedom movement disguised as a song), firmly making the connection between this sort of uncompromising self-esteem and revolutionary possibility, a link highlighted by the song’s finish, a rap breakdown from Monáe long on classic braggadocio (“my crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti / gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City”) and culminating in the question, “electric ladies, will you sleep, or will you preach?”

The song then makes a smash transition into the title track, the album’s fourth single, a lengthy description of Cindi praising “all the birds and the bees / dancing with the freaks in the trees” and describing how “once you see her face, her eyes you’ll remember / and she’ll have you fallin’ harder than a Sunday in September.” It’s worth noting that this marks a significant transition in the depiction of Cindi, however - it’s the first time in the Metropolis Saga that she’s been depicted as a sexual figure. This is a carefully curated sexuality, compared to “a modern day Joan of a Arc or Mia Farrow / classy, sassy, put you in a razzle-dazzy,” but it’s nevertheless made a defining aspect of her character for the first time.

Also interesting is the video, which sees Monáe cast as a member of the Electric Phi Betas, a present-day sorority (which her mother mishears as “Electrified Ladies,” eliciting an absolutely charming eyeroll from Monáe), whose party the video spends most of its time depicting, a further elucidation of the idea that CIndi Mayweather’s revolution extends out from the imagined future of Metropolis to countless places and times.

This flurry of three bombastic songs is followed by the first of the interludes, which, is used to cheekily work through debates within the black community about appropriate expressions of resistance and anger, contrasting two callers. The first is a woman who boasts about how “Droid Control can kiss the rust of the left and right cheek of my black metal ass” and how she’s going out tonight to “break some rules in honor of Cindi.” This caller meets with approval, with DJ Crash Crash asking her what rules, and responding to her suggestive answer that “we’re going to break all of them. We’re going to start at the top, and we gonna work our way down” by saying “I wanna work my way down with you.” The second, on the other hand, is “Ninja Bat Leeroy,” who angrily proclaims that “I’m tired of all these folks messing with us droids, kicking us all up in the head and wonder why we don’t think straight,” and proclaiming that they’re gooing to go out and “hit somebody in the head,” leading DJ Crash Crash to cut him off and proclaim that this is “rusty-dusty nano-thinking nonsense” and proclaiming that “we’re tired of fires, quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing, and loving. Don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass.”

The interlude sets up a transition to a pair of songs with markedly different tones. The first, “PrimeTime,” is a sultry duet between Monáe and guest star Miguel, in which they proclaim that “it’s primetime for our love.” This served as the album’s third single, with a video that returns to Metropolis itself for the first time since the “Many Moons” video, taking place at the Electric Sheep Nightclub, a bar featuring seductively dancing androids. The video fits neatly with Monáe’s declaration of the album as a prequel (as do the interludes, which fit with The Chase’s description of Cindi as “the leading voice of a rebellious new form of pop music known as cybersoul”), depicting Cindi as a waitress at the nightclub flirting with a patron, Joey Vice, played by Miguel, and finally storming out of the club after she’s harassed by a patron, culminating in a rooftop meeting with Joey Vice, who takes her to an underground club and subsequently to his apartment, where there are drinks, Chinese food, and seductive looks. The second, “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” is an enthusiastic reminiscence of an old love affair, with a rolicking chorus that “we were unbreakable / we were like Rock ‘n Roll / we were like a king and queen / I want you to know.” (Note the sly effect of the final line; it contextualizes all the bravado of the first three into an attempt to communicate that bravado to the other part of the song’s “we,” a paradox embodied by the use of the past tense for the adjective “unbreakable.” Pop-confessionalism at its finest.) 

These are followed by a second interlude, seeing DJ Crash Crash at an android version of the classic black barbershop promoting that night’s End of the World Cyber Freak Festival and then introducing the next song, explicitly positioned as one of Cindi Mayweather’s songs, the album’s second single, “Dance Apocalyptic,” which largely does what it says on the tin, which is to say, provides a ludicrously catchy number about dancing in the face of armageddon. The video proclaims it the “Dawn of the Dance Apocalypse,” and features a melange of imagery with Monáe vamping decadently in a TV studio (the setting would appear to be roughly contemporary, although the announcer, portrayed by Jidenna, one of Monáe’s emerging proteges, featured prominently on her 2015 Eephus EP), introduces her as the Electric Lady, before eventually cutting to breaking news of a variety of apocalypses (fires in New York, locusts in Detroit, an earthquake in Miami, and, of course, zombies in Atlanta, who attack Monáe, portraying the newscaster, as the image blurs to static and a variety of strange and alien creatures) before cutting back to Monáe’s earlier performance, which ends with her and her band smashing their instruments and riding off with a suddenly appearing motorcycle gang called the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Like you do.

Its juxtaposition of idiosyncrasy and emphasis, however, is worth remarking on. It is both the second single off the album (and, like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a pre-release single) and diegetically declared to be Cindi Mayweather’s single. And yet it is an aggressively straightforward song. The apocalypse is seemingly non-metaphoric; certainly it’s not in the video. And yet it is also undefined; there are apparently some zombies, but Monáe has used the image metaphorically before, and so ironically, the one major apocalyptic signifier is incapable of defining the apocalypse. Unlike the sonically adjacent “Tightrope” from the previous album, it is not a moralistic song; its sole injunction is to dance. It fits within the larger ethos of self-actualization as revolutionary liberation preached elsewhere on the album and in the Metropolis Saga at large, but only endorses them incidentally. It serves, in other words almost as the archetype of Suite IV; it is a pop song, defined almost purely by its ability to stand out from everything around it. 

The suite ends with the only one of its songs that wouldn’t really have worked as a single, “Look Into My Eyes,” a brief number inviting the listener to be hypnotized by the singer and made into “a perfect work of art,” a return to the seductive imagery of the title track, but now turned into something altogether more chilling and unsettling. And yet the song’s basic promise remains optimistic: “we’ll both watch the sun kiss the sea,” Monáe sings at one point, and ends the song with a plea, “may our love be so brave and so true.” The iconography of a dark turn, in other words, without the actual turn. 

Suite V: The Electric Lady Tracks 11-19

As with The ArchAndroid, the back half of the album is used for comparatively less commercial songs. In this case, that largely involves slowing things down with what’s mostly a series of ballads and love songs in a self-consciously classic R&B style. Its opening is a silky instrumental interpolation of “Look Into My Eyes” that echoes the cinematic feel of Suite IV’s overture that, around the one minute mark, turns into an upbeat jazz take on “Dance Apocalyptic.” 

The suite is divided into a pair of songs - “It’s Code” and “Ghetto Woman” - and a quintet - “Victory,” “Can’t Live WIthout Your Love,” “Sally Ride,” “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” and “What an Experience” - by its lone interlude, “Our Favorite Fugitive. The first is an odd song, and sets a correspodningly odd tone for the Suite. Its title does not actually appear within the lyrics, but a near-match for it does in the chorus, which begins “Oh baby it’s cold / I want you to hold me.” The relative banality of this line matches the song’s lyrics, an unflashy piece of confessionalism about a woman grappling with the realization that her self-conscious distance from a would-be lover has pushed them into the arms of another woman, elevated only by some choice turns of phrase: “love’ll be your curse or a restless friend,” for instance, or the particular detail of the lament “I’ve been hurt / I need a glass of Merlot Blanc.” (An essentially non-existent drink; the grape exists, but is scarcely planted and used almost exclusively in blends.) 

The pun of the title, however, forces a complex reading on a song that is self-consciously resistant to sustaining it. It demands that the listener read a seemingly self-explanatory song lacking in any hidden meaning as “code.” But this paradox, upon inspection, proves to be even larger. Much of the Metropolis Saga, after all, has demanded that we read things as code, taking the oppression of androids in Monáe’s imagined future as a metaphor for present-day oppressions. Indeed, The Chase can be read as a straightforward act of encoding - a tutorial in the proper usage of Monáe’s sci-fi metaphor. But “It’s Code” contains none of these signifiers. Indeed, with the exception of its interlude, about which more in a moment, there are no sci-fi signifiers anywhere in Suite V. Instead we are asked to read the ordinary and everyday as a series of metaphors for an imagined future.

The other song of the first pair is “Ghetto Woman,” the album’s most aggressively non-sci-fi piece. The title is bluntly material, with a real-world connection unseen since “Sincerely, Jane” back on The Chase. It is a hymn to a particular archetype of black femininity, one firmly rooted in urban poverty. But the word “hymn” in many ways sells it short - Monáe is aggressively trying to center this decidedly unflashy vision of black womanhood as a near-platonic ideal, proclaiming her to be “the seventh wonder reigning over us at night” and proclaiming her to be “built to last through any weather.” Revealingly, the song culminates in a soaring rap sequence that’s overtly autobiographical for Monáe, describing her relationship with her own mother and including the lyric “before the tuxedos and black and white every day / used to watch my momma get down on her knees and pray / she’s the reason that I’m even writing this song,” a musical rendition of a frequent refrain in interviews regarding Monáe’s preference for the tuxedo as a desire for a form of uniform like her mother’s janitor uniform, to root her musical work in her working class upbringing.

These two songs are followed by “Our Favorite Fugitive,” the Suite’s one grounding in the Metropolis mythos. As with “Good Morning Midnight” in Suite IV, it features DJ Crash Crash dealing with various callers. Unlike “Good Morning Midnight,” however, where the callers exist to work through a debate within black culture, “Our Favorite Fugitive” deals with a trio viewpoints that are distinctly positioned as outside the oppressed android culture. Two of these viewpoints are straightforward parodies - the first caller, Peggy Lakeshore, who simply calls to declare that she’s “disappointed” and “disgusted” by “people like that” (i.e. Cindi Mayweather), having no objection beyond the fact that “she’s not even a person; she’s a droid.” (DJ Crash Crash accepts the declaration as fact and hangs up on her politely.) The third, meanwhile, simply shouts “robot love is queer” with no further elucidation, to which DJ Crash Crash responds by noting “what I wanna know is how you would know it’s queer… if you haven’t tried it.”

But between these is a caller named Josh. Josh is an interesting figure - he goes out of his way to greet DJ Crash Crash with his catchphrase, “power up,” but his voice tangibly lacks confidence. He mentions that he’s a college student, and notes, “I’ve been following you and cyber-soul and the whole droid underground for a while now,” both of which serve to establish a sense of distance from the community represented by the androids. And his speech is almost obnoxiously hesitant, awkwardly qualifying itself as he asks “You know, if you guys, in android community truly believe that Cindi Mayweather is not just like the Electric Lady Number One and all, but like also the ArchAndroid? Because of course in the book of…” But more interesting is DJ Crash Crash’s response which is to hurriedly cut him off with a “no, no, not on my show” and hang up on him, an apparent rejection of the messianic vision of the previous album. That this should take place in Suite V’s sole engagement with the larger Metropolis mythology is striking.

The final five songs of suite and album continue in the vein of overtly classic R&B numbers set up by the opening two. The first two, “Victory” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” are straightforward. “Victory” is didactic: “to be victorious you must find glory in the little things.” “Can’t Live Without Your Love” is a sultry confessional, flirtatiously trying to stave off a breakup: “baby don’t you know I can’t live without your love.” 

The final three, however, are each fascinating in their own ways. The first, “Sally Ride,” marks a return to the symbolic, and tacitly interpolates the sci-fi imagery of the rest of the Metropolis Saga by invoking Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who died in 2012 during The Electric Lady’s production and posthumously came out as having been in a same-sex relationship. Fittingly, the song also marks the return of Mary, with its repeated refrain, “wake up Mary, have you heard the news / you got to wake up Mary, you got the right to choose.” 

The second, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” also tacitly interpolates the earlier sci-fi imagery, returning to the image of hypnosis from “Look Into My Eyes,” but this time positioning the hypnotic eyes in a historical tradition of black female sexuality via the reference to Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress to get a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. 

And then there is “What An Experience,” the album’s closer, and the final part of the Metropolis Saga to date. The song trades on a central irony - its chorus is invested in the presence, asking over and over again “can you feel it” and proclaiming “I can really feel it.” But the title, also repeated in the chorus, is fundamentally reflective and backward looking, a tone highlighted by the fact that it is the album-closer, and thus an ending. This dualism is highlighted in one of the verses, which notes that “the world’s just made to fade / and all the parties someday blow away / but the memories come home / it’s funny how they come back with a song.”

And yet the main tone of the song is one of immediacy, a sense highlighted by the fact that it contains the most sexually explicit moment of the Metropolis Saga when, in amidst tame pleasantries like “you know when you touch my heart / I can really, really feel it” the line “baby when I touch your cock / can you really, really feel it” appears. The experience is also repeatedly compared to wine, the lover described as “buzzing my mind.” It is, in other words, the sense of hypnotic intoxication of “Look Into My Eyes” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” (and one of the song’s final lines is indeed “look into my eyes”), a sense of overwhelming and immediate experience.

Which is, of course, what it’s always been about, even from before the start. Cindi Mayweather has always been about becoming - a transformation from dystopia to utopia that is always happening and thus never fully realized. As Monáe says to her alterego in the album’s liner notes, “see you where I always see you, in the future.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.06: The Old Gods and the New

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelynn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of Harrenhal: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark, Joffrey Baratheon [sic]
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane

Pyke is abandoned.

The episode is in fourteen parts. The first is eight minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The first image is of Maester Luwin running into his chamber. It features the death of Roderick Cassell, beheaded poorly by Theon Greyjoy.

The second is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran and Rickon Stark to Jon Snow. 

The third is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark. 

The fourth is six minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Jon Snow. It features the death of several unnamed wildlings.

The fifth is six minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark. It features the death of Jocrassa Fel Fotch Pasameer-Day-Slitheen, torn apart by an angry mob.

The sixth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by theme, with both scenes featuring monarchs who cannot control things.

The seventh is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys discussing conquest of the Iron Throne to Tywin’s battle maps. 

The eighth is tjree minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Arya to Robb. 

The ninth is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb Stark to Jon Snow, and by the theme of inadvisable sex.

The tenth is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark.

The eleventh is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from talking about Theon to Theon.

The twelfth is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by theme, from Osha’s use of sex to Shae.

The thirteenth is one minute long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Shae telling Sansa to trust nobody to Osha demonstrating the point to Theon.

The fourteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by dialogue, with Daenerys talking about whoring herself for a boat after Bran and Rickon’s escape. It features a significant depletion in the number of Dothraki in the series. The final image is of a man carrying Daenerys’s dragons towards a tower, his identity a riddle whose answer is chess. 


A bad move, to be sure. They happen. It is easy enough to enumerate the flaws. What’s troubling is how deep-seated they are. Most obviously, the title is rubbish. Despite being a perfectly common phrase in the series, there’s no title drop. It is not about the gods. The only scene with any religious content is the High Septon being torn to pieces, which makes an interesting point about the lack of any magic in the official faith, but which ends up amounting to nothing because, bafflingly, this is the first episode this season to largely ignore the issue of magic accreting at the edges of the board, meaning that there’s no actual “old gods” to balance the impotent new ones within the episode.

There are also larger frustrations in terms of the season. It is difficult to come up with any compelling reason why Tyrion’s plot here should not be exchanged with “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” a switch that would keep Stannis more present in the mix, given that he’s not in this episode. Instead King’s Landing idly drops the sense of impending doom it was building last week to go back to pointing out how awful Joffrey is. 

Beyond that, it is completely disjointed in structure. Fourteen parts is a ludicrous excess, and results in some bewildering cuts. The worst is the one minute Sansa scene pointlessly injected into the middle of two Winterfell scenes, which almost gives the sense of just being a real time cutaway from Theon having sex. The Arya scene interjected between the first two Jon Snow scenes is similarly disruptive, not least because it inadvertently highlights the fact that Jon Snow’s best scene this episode is the one in which Qhorin is just whittering on about nothing.

Or, rather, it highlights the fact that Kit Harrington has certain… limitations as an actor. His innate stuffiness will serve him well in later play, but he is tragically unable to play youthful lust in a way that does not look more like constipation. His non-execution of Ygritte borders on outright unwatchability. But it is the transition from Robb Stark and Talisa to Ygritte’s grinding against Jon Snow that plunges the episode into outright bathos. Certainly it’s (ironically) not hard to believe the two are brothers, but pretty men being woodenly stupid about sex is, perhaps, not where Game of Thrones wants to be putting its emphasis. 

This, in turn, is part of a larger problem in which nearly everybody’s plot hinges on their appalling stupidity, with these scenes coinciding with Arya’s bewilderingly stupid decision to steal a random set of battle plans that she cannot possibly do anything with, as opposed to doing the obvious thing and naming Tywin or Joffrey. Robb and Jon’s bad decisions are at least motivated, albeit clumsily, but Arya is simply making bad decisions for the sake of it, a fact that’s all the more frustrating when contrasted with her clever interrogations of Tywin. 

But the real problem is that this last bit is immutable. This is pretty much what happens in the books; the first real inkling of what would become Martin’s crushing inability to draw his plot threads into anything resembling Aristotelean unity. This is fairly clearly around the point that Martin’s original plans for a tidy trilogy started to unravel into a tangle of excess characters and shaggy dog plots. And a key component of that is that he starts having characters who are normally completely competent act like complete and utter idiots. Entire books could have been cut if Arya had realized she had the opportunity to kill Tywin, Jon Snow had been willing to execute Ygritte, and Robb didn’t break his promise to Walder Frey. And while the decisions not to take any of these shorter routes have interesting consequences, they also slow down play unsatisfyingly and prove dramatically unsatisfying moments in their own right.

And yet even sloppy play has its pleasures. J’aqen’s frustrated eyeroll when he realizes that Arya has gotten herself in trouble; the “Lord Tywin,” “Baelish” exchange; Arya’s attempts to hide from Littlefinger and Aidan Gillen’s delightful distraction from the conversation with Tywin; the disdain with which Bran asks “why” when he hears that Theon has taken the castle; the perversity of Theon hacking at Ser Roderick’s neck and the grotesquery of his blood-splattered face; literally everything to do with Osha.

Which is to say: a round of bad play salvaged exclusively by the quality of the players. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 3: The Education of a Magician

There we go.

It’s perhaps ironic that, having spent two episodes building up the Jonathan Strange/Mr. Norrell dualism that’s the core engine of the series, it’s the act of splitting them back up that drives it to its most emphatic heights thus far. 

In strict dramatic terms, this works because of Lady Pole. Even though Strange and Norrell are in different locations and pursuing entirely divergent interests through most of the episode, the dynamic of Arabella trying to uncover what is wrong with Lady Pole and Norrell working to keep the matter secret links events up well. It’s in some ways surprising this works so well - the plots really are quite separate in terms of what happens, with Strange entirely insulated from events in London, and vice versa. 

The linking moment is instead entirely symbolic - Strange being pushed to attempt ancient magic, and learns of the ways in which this magic is tacitly dangerous. On rawly symbolic terms, of course, it’s significant that Strange’s spell is a lesser version of Norrell’s original sin - both spells involve undoing death. 

But there’s curious nuance underlying this - up to this point the danger of ancient magic had largely been expressed in terms of the Gentleman as an essentially Faustian danger. Old magic involved trafficking with faeries, and faeries are dangerous and untrustworthy. But Strange’s spell to make the dead speak does require any such deals. And yet it is nevertheless clearly dangerous magic, with Strange unable to get the dead to stop speaking again. The danger, in other words, is not merely something that can be tied to the peculiarities of the Gentleman, but rather to something more primal within that sort of magic, having to do with the way in which the magic involves traversing between worlds. 

This is, obviously, unsurprising ground for a story of British fantasy. It seems all but inevitable that we’ll be getting an actual portal to faerie before this tale is done. And it’s striking that Strange’s horror at the consequences of his magic is fundamentally a horror of the uncanny - the fact that the consequences of his magic are monstrous.

The key cut, then, is from Strange cowering from the speaking dead to Norrell’s appalling callousness as he visits Lady Pole, in which he bluntly informs her that she is an innocent casualty of war and of the development of magic, and simply informs her that she will suffer for seventy-five years without respite. The cruelty of it, especially coming after nearly two straight episodes of consciously building sympathy for Lady Pole’s plight, is genuinely shocking, and it is only Marsan’s performance, which emphasizes the extent to which Norrell is aware of how monstrous his actions are, that keeps him from simply becoming an outright villain of the piece. (Note also, of course, the cut back to Strange, unable to extricate himself from the consequences of his own spell.)

The sense of ancient magic as an object of uncanny horror finds resonance in the scenes featuring the Gentleman himself, which begin to make textually explicit the way in which his character is drawn to the marginalized members of society. There’s the makings of a fascinating critique here, with the primal forces of ancient magic serving as a sort of bad social justice based primarily on the fetishization of the marginalized populations, with the Gentleman expressing a desire to love and cherish women and black people the way they “deserve,” a notion visibly separate from what they want, except inasmuch as their desires are tools to possess them. This comes to a head in the scene, late in the episode, in which Stephen is shown the tragic circumstances of his birth, the first properly brilliant scene Stephen has gotten thus far.

All told, then, the sort of thing you really want this show to be and to do. I could probably spend a paragraph or two praising everyone’s performance and direction, but at this point it’s clear that this is just going to be a reliably impeccable show. Although as I look at this episode’s reactions from the UK airing a few weeks ago, I do see that Peter Harness made the interesting decision to dramatically accelerate Lady Pole’s plot with the cliffhanger, pulling an event from the final third of the book back for the third episode cliffhanger. All I can say is that it works impressively well, not least because Enzo Calenti’s Childermass has been an utter scene-stealer, so his peril makes a magnificent cliffhanger.

Harness has suggested that this episode is where the show gets up to speed. If this is going to be the level of quality is sustains over its last four… wow.

Ranking Thus Far
  1. The Education of a Magician
  2. How is Lady Pole?
  3. The Friends of English Magic

Saturday Waffling (June 27th, 2015)

Update: Mr. Brook has responded in the comments. Jack Graham, on Twitter, characterizes his response as "bluff and bafflegab and nothing else," which is pretty much the long and short of it. I've got a funeral today (not mine), so I won't be able to address it in detail until tonight. I've replied in the comments, and updated the original post. The tl;dr is "regrettably it seems like only legal action is appropriate, and that victims should contact UK Trading Services via Citizens Advice."

The original post follows.
Surprising nobody, this is pretty much all about the article I posted on Thursday accusing the website Doctor Who online and its owner Sebastian Brook of fraud. We'll be back with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tonight.

The reports of Sebastian J. Brook and Doctor Who Online ripping people off continue to roll in, both over this and over a wealth of previous slights to a variety of people, both prominent and obscure, over the past decade. Seemingly nobody actually has a good word to say about him or the site.

Meanwhile, Brook remains silent, his only response to people who ask for a response to my article being to block them, or to privately insinuate that there are inaccuracies without offering a shred of detail as to what those inaccuracies might be. I would suggest that at this point his silence speaks volumes.

For my part, what I want is for small business owners in and around the Doctor Who community to be safe from predatory and fraudulent offers. That's it. That's literally my only goal here. I think by far the easiest way for that to be accomplished would be for Sebastian Brook to show the barest modicum of integrity and respond to the evidence I've unearthed in a convincing way that allows everybody to move forward with confidence. I continue to call on him to do that, both because it saves everyone a lot of trouble, and, more to the point, because it is literally the only remotely moral response available to him.

Beyond that... Over the past week, Doctor Who Online has been running a Twitter hashtag #whatwhomeanstome.

That's obviously not a 140 character sort of question for me, hence, you know, the books and all. But certainly a part of what Doctor Who means to me - the largest single part - is that it's an expression of a moral viewpoint that says "stand up to crass and petty jerks who hurt other people." A viewpoint that is completely and utterly uncompromising on that. What Doctor Who means to me, more than anything else, is standing up and saying "no, this is wrong."

Look, if you read that article and don't think there's a compelling case that Doctor Who Online has a moral duty to answer, fine. I disagree with you, but go on your way.

But if you read it and thought "god, that's awful," then for God's sake, step up and help do something about it. I'm not saying condemn DWO. I'm not saying loudly boycott them. I'm saying tell them that they need to address these issues. I'm saying to tell them that you want answers. Because that really is the easiest way forward. Yes, there are legal avenues, and yes, they may need to be explored. Or this could all be wrapped up today if Sebastian Brook realizes that hiding isn't going to work and that he needs to actually do something.

So please. Take a minute of your day and tweet Doctor Who Online asking them to respond to the concerns raised. Ask them on Facebook. E-mail them at Join the calls on GallifreyBase for them to answer the questions raised.

Especially if you're one of my readers who has a large voice in the community. Because I know you exist. If you're someone whose name is on the spine of some books or who comes up in the credits of episodes, if you're someone with your own site, if you're someone with a decent number of Twitter readers... we need you. It's that simple. We need you. Please help us. 

Past that, I suppose, is the question of what the next steps are and should be. If getting Brook to voluntarily show a shred of human decency is a non-starter, what should be the next step in bringing this ugly mess to an end?

Obviously one step, which I at this point unreservedly recommend for UK-based victims, is contacting Citizens Advice to report DWO to Trading Standards. Here's a page with instructions on that.

What else can be done, though?

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Exposed Violet Membrane (The Last War in Albion Part 102: Halo Jones Book Three)

This is the third of five parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Eleven, focusing on Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Ballad of Halo Jones is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The editorially troubled second book of The Ballad of Halo Jones introduced the character of Glyph, a character so meek and unobtrusive that people don't even notice her when she's standing there, and forget about her even as she's talking to them, to the point where her roommates, Halo and Toy, don't even realize they have a third bunkmate.

"One of the Culacaons detaches himself from the main herd and rushes screaming at the nearest mollusk. He stabs the exposed violet membrane over and over with his spear. Everyone cheers. Soon, his fellows join in, each assaulting the snail-thing of their choice. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly masculine." - Alan Moore, "A Man's World"

Figure 807: Halo drinking at a bar, far from home, after learning that
Rodice would not be meeting her on Charlemagne. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Two
in 2000 AD #415, 1985)
Glyph’s tragedy (they ultimately sacrifice themself to save Halo and Toy from Toby’s attack, with neither of the two noticing or remembering them after they’re gone) serves in many regards as a mirror for Halo’s own arc over the course of Book Two, which tracks her voyage on the cruise ship The Clara Pandy. Halo plans to meet Rodice on the planet Charlemagne after a year’s journey, a meeting that hangs over the entire arc from the first installment, which is narrated in the form of a letter from Halo to Rodice as she passes Pluto on her way out of the solar system. But upon reaching the appointed meeting place at the story’s end she discovers that Rodice changed her mind after Halo’s departure and is still back on the Hoop. Angry and betrayed, Halo responds to Rodice’s promise that “I’ll tell you everything when you get back to the Hoop” by proclaiming that she won’t be coming back to the Hoop and hanging up on her, leaving her, in her own way, as isolated and cut off as the forgotten Glyph.

Certainly the character was a success. In stark contrast to Book One’s chilly reception, it quickly became obvious that the profound and crushing sense of isolation and loneliness that Glyph represented had struck a chord in readers. As Moore put it, “the response to this story of a terminal nonentity was surprising in its intensity and I think that, maybe, that was the episode where we finally got the readers on our side.” Certainly IPC was finally on side, commissioning a third run of Halo Jones and this time asking for a twenty part saga instead of the ten part runs of the first two books. Moore, however, was too busy with his DC work to commit to that, and so The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three was set at fifteen parts. 

Figure 808: The 1981 debut of Rogue Trooper.
The third book of The Ballad of Halo Jones saw Moore and Gibson tackling a particularly iconic trope within 2000 AD, namely the war comic. As Moore puts it, “future war has always been the most popular topic among the 2000 AD readership, and it seemed to me that the time was ripe for a story that looked at the concept of war in the future from a slightly different angle to the more traditional one.” This angle, at least in 2000 AD, was best embodied by Gerry Finley-Day’s Rogue Trooper. Finley-Day was in many ways the epitome of the IPC establishment, having joined the company in the early 70s and, like Pat Mills, gotten his start on girls comics, editing Tammy (where he’d created “Slaves of War Orphan Farm”) before following Mills to work on Battle Picture Weekly and Action, and finally becoming one of the mainstays on 2000 AD, starting as the writer on Invasion! and going on to write a variety of titles for the magazine. But it is Rogue Trooper, the story of a genetically enhanced soldier who had the digitally preserved consciousnesses of his fallen comrades embedded into his equipment. 

Finley-Day, however, could be difficult to work with. His scripts were infamously sloppy (a famous early typo in an Invasion! script in which Finley-Day attempted to have Bill Savage escorting men across a plain led to the coining of the word “scrotnig,” a favorite term of Tharg the Mighty), and the general attitude was, as Alan Grant put it, that he “was really good at coming up with ideas,” but “didn’t know how to realise” them. Grant, who’d had to near-completely rewrite his scripts for Harry 20 on the High Rock, more bluntly describes taking the scripts to editor Steve MacManus and saying “we can’t print these scripts the way they are - the sentences don’t make sense, the word balloons are way too long,” and having to cut around sixty percent of the scripts to make them work. Dave Gibbons, Finley-Day’s initial collaborator on Rogue Trooper, gave a similarly scathing assessment, explaining how he broke from his usual practice of lettering stories he did art on because “I got so pissed off with the scripts on Rogue Trooper that I didn’t even want to read them. Steve would précis the script, give me a plot and I would draw it from that. Then someone else would letter it, because I couldn’t bear to read the words, quite honestly.” And so, over the course of the 1980s, Finley-Day steadily found himself eased out of the magazine, with his last contribution being a Rogue Trooper arc that ended in Prog 449, two weeks prior to the debut of The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three.

Figure 809: Gerry Finley-Day's last panel of Rogue Trooper, which
illustrates much of what frustrated Dave Gibbons about the strip. (Art by
José Ortiz, from 2000 AD #449, 1985)
Certainly this strip gives a sense of why Moore might have wanted to approach the idea of a futuristic war from a different angle. The story is a labored and contrived number in which a peace conference between the long fighting Southers and Norts is disrupted by a surprise alien attack, resulting in the Southers and Norts allying to fight this new (and almost wholly unexplained) threat, with the final panel featuring Rogue Trooper cheerily lobbing a grenade and exclaiming, “this is gonna be like old times! Nu Earth at war, and me in the middle of it!” It is not, to say the least, a subtle and nuanced take on the horrors of war. And this was in keeping with Rogue Trooper, a strip Gibbons had rapidly became disillusioned with what he called a “dreadfully written” comic after helping create it, remarking, “it never quite went the way I wanted or hoped. I imagined somebody on a long-term quest to find out where they came from and who they were, against this kind of wild west background. But it turned out more like, ‘Eat Leaden Death, Nort Scum!’ That’s never been my favorite kind of war story.” 

Moore, on the other hand, was interested in returning to an older tradition of war comics, remarking that “among the majority of future war strips that I had come across, none came even close to matching the depiction of inhumanity and misery conjured up by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s masterful Charley’s War.” This was a 1979-debuting strip in Battle Picture Weekly featuring the exploits of Charley Bourne, a working class lad in the usual mould for Battle Picture Weekly: scrappy and possessing a strong sort of practical common sense that is (of course) far more valuable than any sort of book learning. But while the setup of the strip (Charley enlists at the age of sixteen, lying about his age, but forgetting to change his birthday on his paperwork) is bog standard for a British war comic, the tone is markedly different. Charley’s War made no bones about the horrors of World War I, with Colquhoun and Mills both meticulously researching the period so that the actual war content reflected the awful intensity of the actual First World War.

Figure 810: The tragicomic death of Blind Bob. (Written by Pat Mills,
art by Joe Colquhoun, from Battle Action, 1980)
The strip also contained Mills’s trademark satirical streak, which became particularly savage in the sections set in England. This included an extended story arc set in London while Bourne is on leave, featuring Blind Bob, a blind Crimean War veteran. Bob is a classically grotesque character of the sort common in British comics, and he provides no shortage of comedic moments over the course of the story, but it’s a fundamentally tragic story about an old man, disabled in the service of his country and largely left to rot, ending with Bob throwing himself in front of a truck in (tragically mistaken) despair at the prospect of being sent to a workhouse after being integral to saving London from zeppelin raids. It’s at once darkly funny and an absolutely scathing indictment of the treatment of veterans. 

Figure 811: The famously bleak end of the Mills/Colquhoun
run of Charley's War. (From Battle Action Force, 1984)
A similar tone exists in Pat Mills’s last contribution to the strip, which flashes forward “Thirteen years later… January, 1933.. Charley was one of the many ex-servicemen who had been unable to find a job and spent years on the dole.” The strip then shows Charley’s life, being harrangued by Mister Bickers from the Labour Exchange, who angrily reminds him that “if any child does a newspaper round or does errands, the money must be deducted from his father’s dole” before demanding to inspect the Bournes’ larder, before ending with Charley musing to himself that “we fought the war to end all wars… so our kids wouldn’t have to go through the same thing… that’s what makes it all worthwhile” as he walks past an old soldier selling matches and a newspaper salesman proclaiming that Adolf Hitler has just been elected Chancellor of Germany.

Moore was interested in bringing this sort of approach to futuristic warfare, feeling that “since warfare seems to become increasingly horrifying with each passing generation” it was strange that comics were “only capable of bringing home the full gut-wrenching impact when describing the conflicts of the past.” He had prior form in this regard, of course; he’d already written a pair of Rogue Trooper stories for the 1983 and 1984 2000 AD Annuals, both of which looked at the psychological consequences of war, a marked departure from the usual tone of a Rogue Trooper story. But there’s a considerable difference between introducing and killing off a psychologically scarred character over the course of a six-page strip and a fifteen-part look at future war of his own devising, and Moore unsurprisingly went considerably further with The Ballad of Halo Jones.

Figure 812: The awful brutality of war on Moab. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three in 2000 AD
#462, 1986)
The central horror of future war that Moore imagines, occupying the eighth through thirteenth installments of Book Three, involves the planet Moab, “the single biggest non-gaseous planet so far encountered by humanity.” Slightly larger than Jupiter, the planet has massive gravity, requiring all combat to take place in massive gravity suits, rendered by Ian Gibson as massive, vaguely mushroom shaped things that look more than faintly ridiculous. But underneath the slightly ridiculous visuals (which, along with a healthy degree of gallows humor from Halo, keep the strip grounded in its satirical lens) is a solidly gruesome concept. Moab’s gravity is such that exposure to it instantly reduces soldiers to bloody smears if there is any failure in their gravity suits, including, of course, being struck by a bullet. Even grislier, the gravity in the actual combat zones is sufficient to cause massive time dilation, so that in combat events happening even a couple dozen meters away seem frozen in time, slowly accelerating as one approaches them so that, as Halo describes it (in a caption box, Moore having by this point thoroughly abandoned the structural constraints of Book One), “the bullets inch forwards. The spray of arterial crimson descends gradually - a slow, hideous dew,” until finally one is in the thick of the terrifyingly deadly action.

Figure 813: The anticlimactic end of Halo's war. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three in 2000
 #463, 1984)
The result is a chillingly effective metaphor for fog of war, as a seeming snapshot of combat (as it appears at any given moment to those outside the high gravity zones) dissolves into chaos and viscera. Adding to the impact is the disorienting passage of time when one is in combat, so that Halo’s first excursion into the Crush (as it’s called), from her perspective a five minute skirmish in which she runs to an artillery position and back, in fact takes two months outside. This means that whenever Halo emerges there’s a new leadership structure, and any casualties among her unit have long since been mourned and become old news. It becomes impossible for soldiers to actually follow the larger events of 
Figure 814: A post-traumatic Halo
contemplates cold-blooded murder.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Ian
Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo
Jones Book Three
 in 2000 AD #458, 1986)
the war, as everything becomes a blur, entire years of war and politics passing outside the Crush over the course of a week or so for Halo, until suddenly one day all the fighting just stops, and Halo and her fellow soldiers emerge to find a lone cleaning woman who explains that the war has been over for weeks, ever since Earth’s economy collapsed. 

This psychological disorientation mirrors Halo’s own state, reeling from the death of Toy, her old friend from the Clara Pandy, who died in combat on Halo’s previous deployment as Halo tried to drag her injured body back to base for medical attention, not realizing by the end that she was dragging a corpse with her. Halo goes on leave shortly after, but finds herself in an utterly self-destructive state, unable to find any employment other than the military, and finally reenlists after finding herself idly fantasizing about murdering an old woman in cold blood for sport. It’s a shocking portrayal of post-traumatic stress, grounded in the same brutal social realism that saw Mills depicting Charley Bourne on the dole in 1933, and, for that matter, in a Britain where Thatcher’s had only recently gone to war with Argentina for some obscure islands as crushing unemployment sparked riots at home. [continued]